Afraid to Speak its Name?

Britain is now self-consciously multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural, and its Christmas has been similarly transformed. It is now a national winter festival: no longer, for the really politically correct, the suspect ‘C’ word, but the cheerily pagan Yuletide. Publicly, too, it follows what is often thought of as the American model.  We are encouraged to wish one another ‘happy holidays’ and to send ‘seasonal greetings’ in cards that might picture frost and snow, but never the virgin and child, the shepherds and angels or the three magi. And we can be sure that, in their pronouncements, the politicians, church leaders, and no doubt Pope Francis himself will steer clear of any overtly Christian language (the one national figure who might dare to use it is the Queen).

Some consider this change one that all should welcome. So many of the issues raised by the variety of cultures and beliefs in Britain today are increasingly intractable. Here, by contrast, British society seems to have moved from a way of behaving that left minorities feeling excluded to an ethos that allows the whole nation to celebrate together, regardless of creed and background.

Politicians and political commentators justify the Yuletideization of Christmas and the deliberate forgetting of national tradition because it promotes inclusiveness. But this inclusiveness is merely negative, an agreement that there is nothing to agree. It is a characteristic ideal of the liberal absolutism which, as I argued in The State, National Identity and Schools,  is unable to provide answers to the difficult questions, especially those about education, raised by multiculturalism. By contrast, a non-absolutist approach, based on accepting tradition, offers a way to justify the liberal freedoms which liberalism is singularly unable to defend in the face of different, non-liberal values.

Whether therefore much has really been achieved by public abandonment of the Christmas tradition can be doubted. In any case, the change has come at great hidden cost. It is, and long has been, a freedom enjoyed by everyone in Britain to choose not to participate in popular festivities, and to celebrate their own festivities – those of a minority religion or, indeed, purely private ones. A sanitized national winter festival risks celebrating nothing but purchasing power, conspicuous consumption, waste and sloth. By contrast, a Christmas unafraid to speak its name and acknowledge its origins has meaning even for those who do not share the religious beliefs to which it is tied, so long as they can accept and value the national tradition in which it has a place: a Christian tradition, although Britain is no longer a Christian nation.


Professor John Marenbon FBA

John Marenbon is a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and the British Academy and Honorary Professor of Medieval Philosophy in Cambridge. His recent publications include Pagans and Philosophers – the Problem of Pagans from Augustine to Leibniz (2015). For Politeia he has written Intangible Assets: Funding Research in the Arts and Humanities (2018), co-published with New Direction, and Back to School! Preparation, Not Cancellation (2020) co-authored with Louise Moelwyn-Hughes and Dominic Sullivan.

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